Make or Break, Why Middle School Math Counts

The middle school landscape is interesting no matter how you spin it, but combine students’ physical and emotional changes with new and difficult content, and unique challenges face educators and students alike. Middle school is a time of development, discovery and transition for students – but also an exciting and powerful time for math education. As we look into successful middle school math blends, it is key for us to better understand the difference between primary and intermediate math students. How do we increase motivation, build persistence, support the transition into a more independent educational experience, and prepare for future success?
Do the Math. The intermediate grades serve as formative years for conceptual understanding of content as well as an emotional connection to math. While students learn key concepts that will be carried with them throughout the rest of their math careers, they are also developing their love (or hate) of the subject. The stronger conceptual understanding of key skills and concepts such as fractions, mathematical representations, functions, and problem solving that students build, the more they are set up for success down the line. In addition, for many, middle school serves as the initial introduction to Algebra, the foundation for nearly all future math courses. Competency in these foundational skills will prepare students for success, while a lack of understanding will hinder growth and motivation.
Motivate to Succeed with Learning that is Competency-Based. Middle School students desire more independence, yet may not be ready to be completely on their own. This is an essential time to help students take ownership of their learning. A competency-based system, where students must demonstrate mastery of content prior to moving on can help develop life long learners, who take control of their education. Help students identify which skills/concepts they understand well and those where they need more work with. Provide options to expand their learning experience while staying organized. Support them in asking for assistance and clarity and utilize peer tutoring, like the example given in the Reflections on Khan Blends to encourage productive collaboration. Most importantly celebrate their success. With new EdTech tools and blended learning software, more data is available to teachers than ever before. Teachers are trained to make data driven decisions – middle school is a good time to share that data with students and to encourage them in doing the same.
Build Persistence Through Learning that is Student-Driven. Up until this point in their math careers, math may not have seemed that hard. We need to make sure that students are comfortable with making mistakes as part of the learning process. Elementary math often provides a level of instant gratification – you see the problem, you know the answer. In middle school the math starts to get more complex, building connections among content. We need to help students practice patience, use a variety of solving techniques to attack problems, and learn from their mistakes in order to persist through difficult math situations rather than simply giving up. Part of this includes presenting problems and challenges that are interesting to the students. A good example of real world problems are those presented in the Math@Work series from Math 180. Creating student centered experiences that engage learners and build knowledge around their skills and interests help them build context and thus greater understanding of how the content fits into the world around them.
Support the Change Through Learning that is Personalized. If there is ever a time when you question yourself and your confidence, this is it. Why not help students cope with the changes in environment by acknowledging them? A new physical space, content specialists, and more independence can be exciting, but they can also make kids nervous. Middle school students enter the classroom with a wide range of contextual understanding and a high need for a personalized learning path. Blended and personalized learning not only foster high levels of engagement, but will also build confidence through student-centered learning environments, where students are able to fill gaps in understanding or advance beyond grade level content, leading to increased proficiency. A flexible rotation model, such as that used by KIPP Schools can provide the flexibility key to success in a middle school blend.
Look Ahead, Learning Happens Anytime, Anywhere. They may not be writing college applications or resumes just yet, but middle schoolers definitely start developing ideas about their futures. When it comes to jobs, STEM is where it is at. If you need any help convincing your students that STEM careers are worth pursuing, check out Why STEM Education Matters from the National Math and Science Initiative. According to the US Commerce Department, the next 10 years will see significantly more STEM jobs than non-STEM jobs and individuals in these fields will be less likely to struggle with job loss and earn an average of 26% higher pay. “As a society, we desperately need students to be proficient in mathematics so they can succeed in high school, college and the future workforce,” says Matthew Peterson, Ph.D., creator of ST Math, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of MIND Research Institute. Help students prepare for the future by taking the learning beyond the traditional experience, show them that learning is not mutually exclusive with school, rather that learning happens anytime, anywhere.
Although it presents an interesting challenge, middle school is also prime time for making positive change. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of looking back at middle school as the awkward years, students remembered middle school as the time where they fell in love with math? Here’s to hoping!
MIND Research Institute and Scholastic are Getting Smart Advocacy partners
This blog is brought to you by Nellie Mae Education Foundation as part of a series on blended math. For more stayed tuned for the Getting Smart on Blending Middle Grade Math bundle and see the other posts in this series:


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1 Comment

Rita Voit

In my recent blog 'Equation for a Solid Math Education' I compared math development to building a tower:
“If I want to build a short tower, I can build it fast because I don’t have to worry about the strength of the foundation.” I explain to him as I start to haphazardly throw these Jenga-like blocks on top of each other. “But if the foundation isn’t strong, the tower will collapse.” I continue as they all fall down.
“If you want to build a tall tower — if you want to master higher level math — then you have to take your time and insure that everything is solid before you progress.” I conclude as I carefully build my tower, aligning each level before stacking on new blocks.
Blended learning is a wonderful option to allow children to master each math concept before progressing to more complex ones. In the mid 1970's I worked on a project for Hampton City Schools in Virginia to write math and reading programs in BASIC that were successfully used in a pilot program in low-income housing to improve students basic skills. It amazes me that today, more than 40 years later, blended learning is not the standard way to teach math and reading in our schools.

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